Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Future Benjamin and Nichols Could Not Forsee...

After reading Benjamin and Nichols, all the talk of property and copyright brought to mind another (much more amusing) article I read last year that talked about the ultimate result of technological automation on the concept of commerce and capitalism: Forced Artificial Scarcity.

In simple terms , when intellectual property becomes digital, it becomes that much easier to reproduce and redistribute, devaluing the actual worth of the product. At that point, any value attached to an object of art or creative effort is, in reality, nothing outside of what you can make people believe it has. As a result, marketing  becomes more valuable than ever and more money may be spent on that than on the actual product itself. Well, that and trying to clamp down on resources, like the internet, to introduce scarcity in a post-scarcity environment.

We have some great examples of some of the principles talked about there, but here are three of the wider social ramifications of post-scarcity technology that come to my mind.

While the ability to pirate material makes intellectual property worth pretty much nothing and makes a mockery out of copyright laws, it is also forcing companies to switch to a non-ownership model for software. There was a battle in the courts between Adobe and software resellers that centers around 'first sale rights,' the concept that Adobe is only selling the license to use their software, and the physical package does not actually constitute any form of personal property on the part of the consumer. Therefore, selling your old copies to a used bookstore is a form of copyright infringement / software piracy.

While this argument hasn't really hasn't had any traction with the courts, it has started manufacturers thinking about the way they provide software in the age of 'cracked' copies. With the near ubiquity of  high speed internet access, the concept of 'leased' software that exists entirely online could put an end to personally owned software. The Nook already has a similar licensing scheme in place.

Benjamin and Nichols argue that the rise of mechanical and cybernetic technology 'frees' the 'proletariat' from the 'fascism' that can only be held through 'property.' This new development seems to show the opposite, however, in that new technology has is being used to take the means of production, the property if you will, out of the workers hands completely.

If you can get everything you need from your computer, why go out and interact with your neighbors or society at large? This can have a detrimental effect on societal structure as the close bonds and sense of community that existed by way of necessity dissolve away and the individual becomes a lone island in a sea of indifference.

This has particular ramifications for crime prevention. The safety of many neighborhoods is centered around the individual homeowners knowing who their neighbors were, who belonged in the neighborhood, who didn't and by communication between members of the neighborhood watch or similar group. With people becoming more insular, due to the presence of a computer with internet access in every home and every need provided online, there is little incentive to get involved in the community structure personally or even to look out of the window on occasion to see what's going on.

This is a godsend for criminals, who depend on ambivalence and inattention to operate effectively. The most potent crime deterrent is nosy neighbors who are looking out for you, but  in most modern settings, folks are hard-pressed to tell you anything about the person living next door, much less two or more doors down and any strange noises that emanate from outside their personal sphere of existence is 'somebody else's problem.'

There are two real problems with the way IP is so freely reproduced and distributed across the internet. The first is that I sympathize with Lars Ulrich. As a writer of game books, I can expect to sell about 300 - 400 copies of an e-book before my sales tank thanks to the material being reproduced and downloaded thousands of times on Bittorrent. This of course, means that I'm actually only making a fraction of the amount I should have earned on material that people obviously enjoy, but don't want to pay me for.

On top of that problem, due to the fact that everyone and their dog can self-publish today, the torrent of material available in an already niche industry means that many good quality projects are lost in a sea of chaff. Mechanical reproduction may bring art to the masses, but it also brings a lot of dross as well and the desperation to make a living out of your art can lead to a 'lowest common' denominator kind of production where quick, cheap 'spam' is the order of the day.

The concept of the 'Starving Artist' is alive and well in the 21st century...

Ostensibly, the Cracked article is a comedy one, but there are real  ramifications in the concept that technology is doing even more to change society than either Benjamin or Nichols could have forseen from their respective places in the 30's and the 80's. Indeed, many of the things they hoped to see eliminated, like the 'male gaze' that 'objectifies' women (which is totally cemented into place by the ubiquity of internet porn), and the freedom of the 'proletariat' from 'capitalist fascism' (which is actually creating an environment where corporations must become even more creative in their methods of chaining their customers to them out of the need for economic survival in the face of unfettered piracy) are actually being reinforced via the freedom provided by mechanical and cybernetic reproduction.

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